In January, Dale and I experienced our first real earthquake, so now is as good a time as any to talk about a much more famous quake and one of the most significant events in Alaskan history—the Great Earthquake of 1964.
It’s impossible to overstate just how much this event affected Alaska. It devastated numerous towns, including Seward, and also crippled the state’s economy. The recovery process took years and changed the face of many towns. Even though the state has long since recovered, the earthquake of 1964 still hangs over Alaska and was certainly on the minds of many last month.
Here’s a closer look at this epic piece of Alaskan history.
The Great Alaskan Earthquake
I talked in our last post about how prone Alaska is to earthquakes. It’s one the most seismically active regions in the world, and four of the 20 largest earthquakes ever recorded occurred here. The most powerful of these was the Great Alaskan quake of 1964, also known as the Good Friday earthquake because it happened on the Friday before Easter. The earthquake registered a mild-boggling magnitude 9.2 and remains the second-largest earthquake in recorded history, second only behind the magnitude 9.5 1960 Valdivia earthquake in Chile.
The quake struck at 5:36 PM on March 27. The epicenter was about 95 air miles northeast of Seward in Prince William Sound. The ground shook for 3-4 minutes, which must’ve felt like an eternity to the people experiencing it.
Unlike the temblor that we experienced last month, the Good Friday quake was along a subduction zone, a place where one tectonic plate slides beneath another. In this case, it was the Pacific plate, which is slipping under the North American plate at a rate of a few inches a year. This may sound like a minuscule amount, and indeed, the Pacific plate’s movements are glacial in pace, but over time these movements create tremendous pressure between the plates. The release of this tension, which has been building for centuries, sometimes results in “megathrust earthquakes” such as the one in 1964. The Good Friday quake occurred along a fault line 500 miles long and had a magnitude one-tenth greater than that of the 2011 earthquake that devastated Japan.
Alaskan science writer Ned Rozell described the mechanism behind the Good Friday earthquake, using verbs worthy of such a violent geological event: “The Pacific Plate lurched under the North American Plate, tearing and lifting and dropping and throttling, for a terrible four minutes.” And in the process of all that rending and cleaving and ripping asunder, the quake released 200,000 megatons of energy. Such a number is difficult to process, so to put it into perspective, bombs are often measured in terms of kiloton (the equivalent of a thousand tons of TNT) and megaton (which is equal to a million tons of TNT). Fat Man, the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in WWII, was equivalent to 21,000 tons of TNT (well less than one megaton), and the most powerful nuclear bomb ever detonated, the Soviet Union’s Tsar Bomba, produced a 50-megaton blast. So the 1964 earthquake was 4000 times more powerful than the mightiest nuclear bomb ever detonated!
The road and rail systems of south-central Alaska were also severely damaged.
The impact on Seward
Seward is one of the few year-round ice-free ports in Alaska, and it has long been an important conduit for goods being shipped to and from Alaska. At the time of the Good Friday earthquake, Seward’s economy was mostly based on shipping, with barges, freighters, and fishing boats moving into and out of the harbor all of the time, and goods headed for mainland Alaska were then delivered north via train or truck.
The earthquake and the events that followed devastated both the commercial section of town and multiple residential areas, and in a matter of minutes, Seward’s economy was wiped out.
First, there was the landslide. Within 30 seconds of the quake’s beginning, violent tremors caused the coastline along the waterfront to give way. A strip of land slid into Resurrection Bay, taking with it the equipment, railroad tracks, buildings and docks sitting atop it. The landslide also created a localized tsunami with 30-foot waves that crashed ashore almost immediately.
A second tsunami reached Seward about 20 minutes later. This one was seismic and spanned the width of the bay (just picture that). Needless to say, the onslaught of water devastated the town. To make matters worse, burning oil tanks created a raging fire that further added to the damage.
Twelve people were killed, and about 90 percent of the city suffered damage. Railroad facilities, docks, and oil tanks were all destroyed, and residential areas fared little better: over 86 houses were destroyed and 260 heavily damaged. Damage to private and public properties was estimated to be $22 million (the equivalent of $167.2 million in 2015).
Here are some photos of the devastation in Seward:
The number of people who died in the earthquake is not 100% clear, but most sources I saw documented the death toll as 139. The earthquake itself caused 15 deaths, and the ensuing tsunamis were much more deadly, killing 124 people (106 in Alaska, 13 in California and 5 in Oregon). The community that was hit the hardest in terms of percentage of the population killed was the Alaska Native village of Chenega, where 23 people—a third of its population—died, including children who were ripped from their parents’ arms by the tsunami’s waves.
Each death was a tragedy, and yet the death toll was surprisingly low given the awesome power and size of the earthquake. Why wasn’t it worse? There were several factors. First, it was a holiday, and many people in the devastated waterfront commercial areas were not at work. But also, Alaska was (and still is) sparsely populated compared to the mainland U.S. If the Good Friday earthquake had hit a more populous area, the death toll would likely have been much, much higher.
All told, the earthquake and its aftermath caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage in the U.S. and Canada. Alaska’s economy was devastated, and the state didn’t have the resources to address such a widespread disaster on its own. Fortunately, the federal government provided immediate and prolonged assistance. The U.S. Military, which has long had a presence in the state, reestablished communication and water and provided food, supplies, and support to heavily hit areas. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assisted with the long process of clean up and then helped plan and rebuild roads and cities. Federal disaster relief funds financed the rebuilding effort and helped sustain the government of the State of Alaska until it could get back on its feet. The West Coast and Alaska Tsunami Warning Center was created, and an Alaska National Guard was formed to address any future disasters that might occur. And, as luck would have it, massive oil deposits were found a few years later in Prudhoe Bay. Once the infrastructure was in place and the oil started flowing, the revenue from the oil fields drastically improved Alaska’s economy.
Seward also recovered, and the waterfront was transformed from a site of industry to one of tourism. The city created the Seward Waterfront Park and Campground, which contains a walking path and a large campground that hugs the shoreline of Resurrection Bay. Seward has become a tourist destination, and in the summer the park is beyond packed with RV’s and tent campers. Seasonal workers and tourists flood in, and the town’s population grows exponentially in the summer. And it’s so worth a visit; Seward is one of the prettiest towns in Alaska!
Dale and I love Waterfront Park. We walk its paved path frequently, taking in the million-dollar views and enjoying all manner of wildlife, from whales, sea lions, seals, and otters to eagles, sea birds, and even, occasionally, moose.
Even though the industry that once existed here is now gone, reminders remain; wooden stumps protruding from the water and rusted remnants leading to nowhere evoke a different Seward, one that thrived before an enormous catastrophe swept it away.
It’s also sobering to know that lives were lost here.
Last month’s temblor was nothing like the Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964, but at M7.9 it was certainly no slouch, and it reminded us that the next big one is always possible, not just in Alaska but along any number of fault systems on the West Coast or around the world, and that any belief in solid ground is, to quote the Alaska Daily News,“one of humanity’s greatest illusions.”
And yet, despite the high number of earthquakes that Alaska gets, it’s a much safer place to live these days. The early warning system that we experienced first-hand a few weeks ago allowed for quick evacuation of the waterfront and low-lying areas. And thanks to extensive scientific studies surrounding the Good Friday quake, we now understand what causes subduction earthquakes. In fact, the event helped prove the theory of plate tectonics, which was a fledgling concept back in 1964. Having knowledge of how mega-quakes are formed makes us all safer, and it’s one of the good things that came out of a truly catastrophic natural disaster.
US Geological Survey Information page: The Great M9.2 Alaska Earthquake and Tsunami of March 27, 1964. This page offers lots of fascinating information, links, and videos.
Wikipedia, 1964 Alaska earthquake
Anchorage Daily News, In Great Alaska Earthquake, most deaths were caused by tsunamis”
Anchorage Daily News, The scars of Alaska’s 1964 earthquake still have lessons for us
Here’s a U.S. Geological Survey video about how the 1964 earthquake helped scientists better understand plate tectonics.
This You Tube page links to numerous earthquake videos and historic footage.